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Orlando Sentinel: Nikki Fried wants state-chartered bank to handle medical-pot proceeds

TALLAHASSEE — Democratic Agriculture Commissioner candidate Nikki Fried and other state Cabinet candidates from both parties want to see federal banking changes that could lead to Florida financial institutions being open to people and businesses with ties to the medical-marijuana industry.

But Fried’s proposal for a state-created bank to handle the burgeoning industry’s money has little support from other candidates who may be part of the next Cabinet.

Fried, an attorney and medical-marijuana lobbyist from Fort Lauderdale, has made revamping regulations about the cannabis industry and banking a high-profile issue because of difficulties she has had in securing a bank for her campaign account.

Fried said as a Cabinet member she would lobby the federal government to enact laws that would protect banks that handle money tied to marijuana. She also would advocate that the state’s top financial regulator, who is overseen by the Cabinet, maintain an “open door” policy for banks handling marijuana money. Also, she said she would urge fellow Cabinet members to charter a bank that could handle the money.

“We can start a state bank. That is something I have been proposing as well, a national state-bank that is controlled by the Cabinet that we can take dollars from companies and have it housed in one location,” Fried said during a conference call last week in which she was joined by former Gov. and U.S. Charlie Crist, D-Fla.

Fried said a state-backed back would be better positioned for Florida lawmakers to provide defense from “any actions on the federal level.”

Fried’s call came as twice in the past two months her campaign account been bumped from national banks, first by Wells Fargo, then by BB&T.

Florida voters in 2016 approved a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana. While Florida is one of about 30 states with such legalization, cannabis remains illegal on the federal level. As a result, financial institutions have been reluctant to put themselves into a position where they can be accused of laundering drug money.

“These banks are placing limits on access to medical marijuana and limits on the care Floridians can receive,” Fried argued.

Fried’s Republican opponent for agriculture commissioner, state Rep. Matt Caldwell of North Fort Myers, has a different plan to address medical-marijuana issues.

Caldwell wants to move the Office of Medical Marijuana Use from the Florida Department of Health to Agriculture Department.

“I am advocating for the largest role possible for the commissioner in order to see the medical cannabis program instituted and developed consistent with the law and Florida Constitution,” Caldwell said.

Democrat Jeremy Ring, a former state senator running for state chief financial officer, was the only major-party Cabinet candidate who backed Fried in setting up a state-chartered bank to handle medical-marijuana money. However, Ring would place a caveat on how the financial institution is run.

“As long as it serves as a depository institution, solely, then yes, the Cabinet should consider establishing a state-chartered bank,” Ring said. A depository institution could be a commercial bank, while examples of non-depository institutions could include such things as securities firms.

The campaign of incumbent Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, a Republican from Panama City, said the state has been seeking to clear up federal banking rules.

“The CFO’s office sent a letter to the Federal Reserve earlier this year which asked for clarification and guidance on how to best handle the lack of banking options for medical marijuana companies because he was concerned about crimes, theft and the safety of those who are managing the funds associated with those businesses,” Patronis campaign spokeswoman Katie Strickland said in an email.

Attorney general candidates Ashley Moody, a Republican from Hillsborough County, and Sean Shaw, a Democratic state representative from Tampa, favor working with the federal government to clear up the conflicts in state and federal law.

By Jim Turner

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